“Finding out how the Bible was formed is like watching a hot dog being made. You may like the result but the process is disturbing.” (Anonymous)
Read Part 1 Here.
PART TWO: THE OLD TESTAMENT CANON
It’s Not Quite My Last Name
How did the books of the Bible get to be in the Bible? The scholarly word is “canon,” used to describe the standard to decide which books should be in our Bible and which should not1. For a book to be “canon,” it means that God wants us to have it as an authoritative source of the truth He communicated to us.
First, I will say that while we can know God through nature and creation as well as through our own morality and human reason, the most essential knowledge of God comes through how he has revealed himself to men through stories, prophecies and other writings, even poetry and prose. Much of the Bible claims explicitly to be from God and is recorded so his people could know Him, how to relate to Him and how to live in response to that.
Additionally, I think it is rational to conclude that if there are genuine writings that God used to communicate to his followers, then there are also writings that could be considered as inspired by God when they really are not. Any time you have a ‘right’ group of anything, there will often be a competing ‘wrong’ group. As with currency, there are true valuable paper bills and coins and there are counterfeits.
How do we know the difference?
The Old Testament’s 39 books
The traditional reckoning of the Jewish Hebrew Bible, which corresponds to the Protestant Old Testament, is 24 books, or by some counts 22 books2. The difference in numbering between the Protestant Bible and the Hebrew Bible lies in the fact that the Hebrew Bible combined books that our Old Testament separates: the 12 minor prophets are one book, Samuel and Kings were each one book, etc.3. The 1st Century A.D. Jewish historian Josephus wrote around 90 A.D. that the Jewish canon included 24 books, that they were universally accepted by the Hebrews and that the canon (although he would not have understood that word as we use it) had been closed for a long time4. The appeal to the Jewish tradition matters because the first Christians were Jews and Jewish history is Christian history until Christ divided it. Which was after the Old Testament was completed as far as writing and mostly confirmed as far as canon (not everyone agrees that the Old Testament canon was settled by 90 A.D. as Josephus asserts5).
Jerome in the 4th century A.D. mentions an alternative 22 book count where Lamentations is added to Jeremiah and Ruth added to Judges6. Other sources, such as 2 Esdras in the first century, agree with him7.
Additional early Christian sources that endorse, either certainly or probably, the traditional Protestant books as canonical include: the prologue to Sirach (132 B.C.), Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C. – A.D. 50), 2 Esdras 14:45 (1st Century A.D.), Melito (A.D. 170), a Jerusalem list (A.D. 170), Origen (A.D. 185-203), the Babylonian Talmud (3rd to 6th centuries A.D.), Rufinus (345-411 A.D.), and others8. These sources have weight to their authority and add credibility to the (now) 39 book list. To be noted is that a couple of these sources are missing Esther.
But one source trumps all the rest…
Jesus himself is the crucial voice on this matter to me. Being God himself by my understanding of the New Testament writings, he has the supreme authority to determine what is from God and what is not. And while I cannot prove beyond any doubt that Jesus considered Esther to be Scripture and not the Wisdom of Solomon (an Apocryphal book), I think it is extremely reasonable to conclude his references to Scripture were the same 39 books I call the Old Testament today.
First, Jesus seemed to consider Scripture what he referred to as “The Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12) but most specifically on at least one occasion referred to Scripture as “the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44)9. This corresponds to the typical threefold division of the Jewish Scriptures (our Old Testament), possibly mentioned as early in the prologue of the 2nd century B.C. work Ecclesiasticus: the Law, the Prophets and the Writings (sometimes known as the Hagioarapha)10. By any book count you can see the traditional Protestant Old Testament divided into these three groups:
- “The Law” included the first five books, the Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
- “The Prophets” included Joshua, Judges/Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah/Lamentations, Ezekiel and the 12 minor prophets.
- “The Writings” included Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Daniel, Chronicles, Ezra/Nehemiah and Esther11.
Now, we must note that Jesus said “Psalms” and not “Writings” but it is safe, I think, to assume that he meant all of the books listed above in the “Writings” by referring to that group’s longest, most prominent, and in some cases first chronologically book–Psalms–as a representation of all the books in the grouping12. He certainly considered Daniel, another book in the “Writings,” to be Scripture (Matthew 27:9) and indirectly referenced Chronicles as a bookend to Scripture (see below).
Additionally, Jesus once said in condemnation of the Pharisees, “And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah…” (Matthew 23:35; Luke 11:51). By doing so, he seemingly is making reference to the beginning of his Scripture (Abel murdered in Genesis) and the end (Zechariah murdered in Chronicles, which is probably the last book in the Hebrew Bible by order)13. While not absolutely clear, I think it is reasonable to conclude Jesus is endorsing the typical Jewish canon, which is my Old Testament.
The Controversial Five: You mean Song of Solomon in on this List? No way!
Even though Jewish history seems to have a firm grasp on which books belong to their canon, it is true that throughout Jewish history and into Christian beginnings in the first century, the issue of the canon being closed was not unanimous and was not even settled with finality by the Council of Jamnia in A.D. 90. Five of the 39 Old Testament books were long considered controversial to varying degrees. Criteria for Old Testament canon were likely answering questions like “Does the book have contradictions?” and “Is it clearly in harmony with what we know about God from undisputed messages from God, as in the Law of Moses?” and “Was it written by a prophet or someone who could speak for God?”14 And so historically these five books were debated by rabbis and not settled for good until well into Christian history in the first few centuries A.D.
It seems to have a contradiction in Proverbs 26:4-5. The harmonizing of these two verses became to be seen as rather simple in that you sometimes answer a fool and sometimes you do not. It also has Solomon as its author, who is confirmed in canonical books as authoritative15.
It seems secular in parts, contradicting God’s clear message of hope and also seems to contradict itself in places like 2:2 and 7:3. But it may have been written by a man with God’s authority, Solomon, and if understood as a man who messed up his life the way Solomon did, then his conflicting and anti-hope messages make sense. It is not a doctrinal book as much as a “Here is what happens if you do not follow God’s plan” testimonial16.
Does not mention God by name. But was eventually unanimously accepted as canon due to the faith of Esther and Mordecai and how the providence of God clearly rescues his people17.
Song of Solomon
Possibly no mention of God (8:6 may be the one place it does), definitely does not have a message that is similar to any other Bible book, Old or New Testament. Could be interpreted as an allegory of God’s love for Israel and is mentioned in Revelation in the New Testament18.
Chapters 40-48 seem to contradict the books of Moses in regards to the temple and the Law. A man named Hananiah is generally given credit for spending a great amount of time trying to harmonize Moses and Ezekiel and did so successfully19.
Let me be clear that for all five of these books (Esther excepted in a couple of instances), they were accepted by all the sources I listed above. They had significant backing as far as canon from a variety of sources and from very early in Christian history.
What about the Apocrypha and other Deuterocanonical writings?
Some Christian sects have historically had more books in the Old Testament than Protestants. From Augustine in the 4th century to Martin Luther’s opponents 1200 years later, leaders throughout church history have argued that the Apocrypha and Psuedepigrapha should be canon. While they were not canonized at the same time as the 39 Protestant OT books, they were canonized after, hence the name “deuterocanonical” (meaning “second canon” similar to how Deuteronomy means “second law”). There are several reasons why Protestants have in response not accepted these books:
1. Jesus and the other New Testament authors almost certainly never cite the Apocrypha and Deuterocanonical as Scripture or authoritative. Jesus, as mentioned above, seems to be clear on the content and parameters of his canon. I would have an easier time believing that Jesus did not consider Song of Songs to be canon than to believe that he did accept any of the Apocrypha. There are likely allusions to the Deuterocanoncial books in Jesus’ words and the NT on the whole, and we will deal with that below20.
2. None of these books claim to be from God, as do many of the Protestant OT books21.
3. There are historical and theological inconsistencies in these books22.
4. Jewish tradition only accepts the canon mentioned above and states that prophetical messages from God ceased around 400 B.C. All of the Deuterocanonical books were written after that time23.
Didn’t the Septuagint (LXX) contain the Apocrypha?
Greek speaking Jews needed a Bible in their language and thus, the LXX (written between 250 and 100 B.C.), was born. This translation was not used by Christ, who would have used the Hebrew Scriptures, but was used by the early church after him, including the writers of the New Testament.
The earliest extant manuscripts we have of it are from the 4th century A.D. and they do contain the Apocrypha, but there is no real way to know for sure what the LXX contained when it first started, as these manuscripts are late24. The New Testament writers when using the LXX do not refer to its parameters so it is probable that they followed their Lord, Jesus, in adhering to the Jewish canon25.
First century B.C. Greek-speaking Jews likely wanted the Apocrypha with the LXX because they wanted access to all important Jewish writings. But they did not consider these additional writings to be canon. It is also possible that some first century A.D. Christians who used the LXX, and were therefore unfamiliar with the Jewish canon as found in the Hebrew Bible, became confused over time about which books were canon and which were not and included the Apocrypha as canon. If so, they were mistaken to do so26.
But what about the Jesus and the New Testament citing the Apocrypha?
I have seen lists of supposed times where the New Testament authors and Jesus reference the Apocrypha27 as proof that they found it authoritative.
I do not deny there are a few places where it seems the deuterocononical books are alluded to, Jude 9 as the most notable example, but this in no way makes them Scripture. Paul quoted secular poets to make a point in Acts. I see no clear reference where any book outside of the Hebrew Bible is referenced as Scripture. I do not deny the Apocrypha was important to Jews and Christians early in church history. They read it. But they did not quote it as their Bible.
Additionally, the evidence of these references is exaggerated in lists I have seen. For example, it is alleged that when Jesus says “sheep without a shepherd” in Matthew 9;36, he is quoting Judith 11:19. But that exact phrase is also found in Numbers, 1 Kings, 1 Chronicles and Isaiah–books we know for sure Jesus considered Scripture. He is likely citing those passages. Similarly, “Lord of Heaven and earth” is alleged to be a quote from Tobit 7:18, but that phrase (or similar forms) is used repeatedly in the canonical OT books. And I could go and on, breaking each example down, and showing how most are more likely the Apocryphal books using Hebrew Bible phrases and NOT examples of how Jesus “cited the Apocrypha.”
In closing, I will say I find it fascinating and comforting that for both the Old and New Testaments, there is no one point in time where you can say, “This person or group of people decided which books to put in.” I think that is important and by no means discouraging. It shows that God used many men and a process to get it done, so that no one could take credit. The credit for the Bible’s canon goes to God and God alone.
Read Part Three HERE.
Read Part Four HERE.
- For an etymology and more detailed definition, see F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 17-18 ↩
- Roger Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church, 235-241 ↩
- Paul D. Wegner, Journey from Text to Translations, see chart on pg. 44-45 ↩
- Beckwith, 235 ↩
- Ibid, 274-77 ↩
- Ibid, 240-41 ↩
- Ibid, 240 ↩
- In Defense of the Bible, Cowan and Wilder, eds, 396-400; see also Wegner, 108-113 ↩
- Bruce, 31-32 ↩
- Ibid, 31 ↩
- Ibid, 29 ↩
- In Defense of the Bible, 399 ↩
- Bruce 31 ↩
- Wegner, 117, taken from Josephus’s Contra Apion ↩
- Beckwith 318-19 ↩
- Wegner, 116 ↩
- Ibid, 116 ↩
- Beckwith 318 ↩
- Wegner, 115 ↩
- In Defense of the Bible, 403 ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. For a detailed list of examples, see Wegner, 125 ↩
- Beckwith, 370 ↩
- Wegner, 109 ↩
- Bruce, 50 ↩
- Jeremy Royal Howard, The Origin, Transmission and Canonization of The Old Testament Books, taken from the HCSB Study Bible, x-xii ↩
- Like this one: Did Jesus Quote From the Apocrypha? ↩